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Flood-swept Czech town turns disaster into development

by Staff Writers
Chrastava, Czech Republic (AFP) Dec 10, 2010
Not many Czech towns of 6,000 might push "pinup" calendars featuring local women but Chrastava, ravaged by floods in August, has put a novel spin on turning disaster into development.

The town is still reeling from the devastation wrought when fierce rains turned a local river into a raging waterway, flooding 200 homes in this northern locality right near the Polish and German borders.

Damage is estimated at 1.5 billion koruna (60 million euros, 81 million dollars) but relief funds from the central government have been slow to arrive.

So the town, 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of the capital Prague, took reconstruction into its own hands.

Chrastava now boasts several projects, including a new -- if eccentric -- footbridge to replace the old one washed away in the floods: a rickety, wood-framed, hand-propelled funicular for pedestrians.

"The frame is a bit unstable. You operate it at your own risk," admitted Mayor Michael Canov, a burly man with a black beard, as he carefully entered the swinging wooden cage hanging on a steel pipe mounted to a frame.

He gripped a rope at waist level and pulled hand-over-hand to set the cage or "gondola" in motion, drawing it across the river to a hill with a train stop and castle ruins popular with tourists.

"It's not in the town centre. But it will help local people a lot," beamed the 49-year-old Canov.

Prague architect Martin Rajnis, who designed the device, donated his plan to Czech towns that lost pedestrian bridges. He said he drew inspiration from similar projects in Germany, France and Spain.

"They have been used for a long time," said Rajnis. "But this is the only 'transporter bridge' in the Czech Republic. And, as far as I know, it's the only one anywhere that's made of wood."

Rajnis' students built the device, which cost 650,000 koruna (26,000 euros, 35,000 dollars), in less than a week thanks to money raised by a group of Czech entrepreneurs.

But Chrastava is not only relying on help from on outsiders.

A group of 12 local women produced a fund-raising "flood calendar", posing -- modestly by pinup standards -- in overalls and rubber boots as they take a break from cleaning up flood debris.

"Many people helped us and we in turn wanted to help someone else," said Klara Sehnoutkova, who organised the project.

"These all were ordinary girls posing in ordinary situations," said the 31-year-old "Miss May", pictured on a concrete collar, shovel in hand. She said a first print run of 2,000 was selling well.

"All 12 of us were flooded, and since nine of us have small kids, we decided to use the proceeds to help children -- the kindergarten, the elementary school, the young footballers and a playground," said Sehnoutkova.

The woman, who expects to return to her badly damaged house early next year, found her models among friends and on a town website list of flooded households. A local photographer took the pictures for free.

"When they came up with the idea, I thought: 'They're OK now. They are looking for distraction because they were hit so badly by the flood.' So of course I liked the idea," said Canov.

Another local woman has sponsored a collection of "flood postcards" showing damaged houses, with proceeds from sales to help flood victims.

Despite the positive note to the initiatives, Mayor Canov has much to worry about -- most repairs are temporary and urgent pleas to the regional development ministry have failed to speed up aid.

"We have filed about 50 requests, but we have only received one interim report saying that something looked promising. We don't have a single decision yet," said Canov.

Worse, a major employer -- Spanish car parts maker Grupo Antolin -- wants to leave the town after its factory was flooded.

The facility, whose 500 employees produce ceiling panels for cars made by the largest Czech-based auto maker, Skoda Auto, said it plans to move to a new location seven kilometres away, but has vowed not to sack any of its employees.

"But you know how it is -- the jobs will always be more available to people who live nearer, and it will also be unpleasant for the town which will have lower income from taxes and an empty factory on its hands," Canov worried.

And the spectre of more flooding haunts Chrastava.

Two recent days of heavy rainfall forced police to close a street on the verge of collapsing into a river.

"I only hope the flood won't come again. Some people probably would not get over it emotionally," said Sehnoutkova.

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